The 2018 J-League season is finally underway. On March 3, Vissel Kobe – Rakuten’s professional football team from CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani’s hometown of Kobe – held their opening home match at the local Noevir Stadium Kobe.

For Vissel, the new season has brought several exciting developments, starting with the very ground underneath the players’ feet.

Noevir Stadium has become Japan’s first football pitch to feature a hybrid grass surface.

Noevir Stadium has become Japan’s first football pitch to feature a hybrid grass surface.

Bringing high-tech grass to the J-League

As of 2018, Noevir Stadium has become Japan’s first football pitch to feature a hybrid grass surface. The new high-tech construction consists of 95% natural turf combined with synthetic fibers for reinforcement and ease of maintenance, and is said to be almost indistinguishable from regular grass, eliminating many of the common concerns surrounding synthetic surfaces and player injuries.

The new technology is undergoing something of a boom in the footballing world, having been adopted by big-name clubs such as Rakuten global partner FC Barcelona, Chelsea FC and much of the English Premier League. The upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, is also looking to use the new grass in six stadiums, including those of the finals.

Captain Podolski takes the helm

A recent addition to the team has been German star striker Lukas Podolski, who made headlines around the world when he made his Asian debut with Vissel Kobe in July 2017. After giving the superstar time to settle into his new Japanese life, Vissel has now appointed the man known as Poldi as their team captain, also drawing on his experience as the former leader of the German World Cup squad.

Lukas Podolski, Vissel Kobe's newly announced team captain, speaks to media after the team's home opener.

Lukas Podolski, Vissel Kobe’s newly announced team captain, speaks to media after the team’s home opener.

Unfortunately, Vissel’s opening matches left them with a draw and a loss. After a heartbreaking defeat to Shimizu S-Pulse at Noevir Stadium, Podolski didn’t hold back in sharing his thoughts about the team’s performance.

“I’m very disappointed that we lost the first home game … I think it was our own fault – we had a lot of chances,” he told reporters at the stadium. “Even though we were the better team for 70 minutes, we were asleep for the first 15 or 20 … so it’s truly bitter that we lost a game like this one.”

Asked about his debut as Vissel captain, Poldi didn’t beat around the bush. “Well, the results so far have been one draw from two games. That’s not what we want – we want more,” he said. “Looking at both of the games, I think we were clearly the better team. Sometimes football is really bitter, and today we emerged as the losers.”

A new slogan for a new season

Vissel Kobe's new slogan translates to “Solidarity: Succeed as a Team.”

Vissel Kobe’s new slogan translates to “Solidarity: Succeed as a Team.”

For Vissel, the 2018 season will be all about teamwork. The team’s new slogan borrows one of Rakuten’s favorite Japanese idioms: icchi-danketsu (一致団結). The expression represents something that Rakuten has embraced as part of its corporate philosophy – “Solidarity: Succeed as a Team.”

And in true Rakuten style, the players have given themselves a lofty goal to shoot for: Number one in Asia. Who knows – with Captain Podolski at the helm, Vissel might just have a shot.